The possible acquisition of a big-bodied receiving threat dominates discussions concerning the Chicago Bears with the NFL lockout lifted.
What about the man responsible for delivering the ball?
Let’s not forget that quarterback Jay Cutler absorbed a league-high 52 sacks in 2010, in addition to leaving one game with a concussion, and another with a sprained knee in part because of shoddy protection along an offensive line that went through five combinations of starters before eventually settling on continued inconsistency.
Twenty-four of Cutler’s sacks came over the final eight games -- after the Bears supposedly fixed the line -- begging the question: How do they expect to improve protection in 2011 utilizing virtually the same players (with the exception of first-round pick Gabe Carimi) as the year before?
They can’t. That’s why the receiver position, while important, shouldn’t take precedence over the offensive line during this upcoming period of unrestricted free agency. Without adding more than just a rookie first-round pick to the offensive line, there’s no way the team can realistically expect the unit to significantly improve.
“Free agency is a big part of our team,” running back Matt Forte said. “We’ve signed a lot of big free-agency deals the last couple of years, [and] I could see us picking up some more linemen in free agency.”
Surely, Cutler hopes so, too.
Here’s a list of positions the Bears might address in order of importance, and potential free-agent targets. Because of his uncertain status, Patriots guard Logan Mankins was excluded from consideration for this list.
Roberto Garza gradually improved after missing two games due to arthroscopic surgery. Still, the team needs to acquire Garza’s eventual replacement, while upgrading the left side, where former first-round pick Chris Williams played inconsistently.
With a rookie (Carimi) and second-year player (J'Marcus Webb) penciled in as starters at tackle, depth at that position might also be addressed in free agency. But it’s doubtful the club pulls the trigger on expected big-ticket players like Jared Gaither (Ravens), Willie Colon (Steelers) or Doug Free (Cowboys).
Harvey Dahl, Falcons: Dahl flashes the type of nastiness coveted by Bears offensive line coach Mike Tice. Because the Falcons have to find a way to re-sign three offensive linemen, Dahl -- who represents an upgrade -- might be in play for the Bears.
Kyle Kosier, Dallas: He allowed only one sack last season, but his age (32) and salary demands might be too much for the Cowboys, who appear to be approximately $18 million over the $120 million salary cap. Might be too rich for the Bears’ taste, too, but would start right away.
Evan Mathis, Bengals: Mathis makes this list because he could turn out to be a bargain-priced steal. Mathis didn’t start most of last season, but played well with limited opportunities. At worst, Mathis -- who possesses starting-caliber ability -- could provide strong interior depth.
Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are the only Bears linebackers under contract, and the team needs to find a starter to play on the strong side. Nick Roach appears to be the most likely candidate, but Lovie Smith said the team will bring in competition at the position.
James Anderson, Carolina: Coming off a breakout season (130 tackles, 3.5 sacks, five pass breakups), Anderson, 27, fits Chicago’s system. He’s indicated he’d like to re-sign with the Panthers quickly, but a lucrative contract could lure him away.
Keith Bulluck, N.Y. Giants: Bulluck has said he wants to play for a contender. His age (34) and recent injury history (torn ACL in 2009) are a concern, but his track record and leadership are undeniable. His salary demands may be more than what the Bears would pay.
Justin Durant, Jacksonville: The Jaguars don’t plan on bringing back Durant, who fought through nagging injuries during somewhat of a down 2010 season. Although he’s the type of run-and-hit style of linebacker the Bears like to utilize in their system, Durant would seem like an ideal fit for a two-down role.
Although the Bears would like to add a veteran to the group, several in the organization feel the team could get by with the players already on the roster. Santonio Holmes, Santana Moss and Mike Sims-Walker appear to be the most likely candidates, but players such as Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith figure into the mix, too.
Santonio Holmes, N.Y. Jets: At 27, Homes is in his prime. But surely, Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum will do everything he can to retain Holmes’ services, which means the Bears might also have a shot at players such as Edwards and Smith. Holmes likely will be highly coveted.
Santana Moss, Redskins: Despite his age (32), Moss is an explosive deep threat, who fits what the Bears do offensively. Bears receiver Devin Hester told the Chicago Tribune he’d like to play with Moss. But Moss has stated his desire to remain a Redskin.
Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars: Sims-Walker is somewhat of an enigma considering his size (6-foot-2, 214 pounds), deceptive speed and smooth route-running ability. Injuries and life outside of football (let’s be clear that he doesn’t have off-the-field issues) have kept Sims-Walker from reaching his full potential. The Bears may be able to acquire him relatively cheaply.
The Bears brought in Richmond McGee as a potential replacement for veteran free agent Brad Maynard, who isn’t expected to be brought back. But surely the Bears don’t trust the unproven McGee, which means there’s a chance they will bring in another player whether it’s an established veteran or rookie free agent.
Sam Koch, Ravens: He has a 43.7-yard career punting average (38.1 net), and he’s landed a Ravens franchise-best 149 punts inside the 20.
Adam Podlesh, Jaguars: Podlesh was tendered, but is a four-year veteran, which means he’s not expected to be a restricted free agent under the new CBA. Considered a free-agent priority by the Jags, Podlesh ranked fifth in the NFL in net average (39.12 yards).
Steve Weatherford, Jets: Posted a 38.1 net average in 2010, and is believed to be the Bears' targeted player to replace veteran Brad Maynard. Weatherford punted a league-high 42 balls inside the opponent's 20-yard line last season.
Depth along the defensive line and secondary certainly make sense in free agency.
At cornerback, the Bears are happy with Charles Tillman starting on one side, with Tim Jennings and Zack Bowman competing for the job at the opposite corner in training camp. Second-year man Joshua Moore figures into the mix, too, according to Smith. So with five players -- counting nickel corner D.J. Moore -- capable of contributing already on the roster, it’s unlikely the Bears use free agency to add a veteran unless they can swing a deal for a major upgrade.
Prior to the draft, the Bears wanted to add to the defensive line, and they did just that by drafting second-round pick Stephen Paea. There’s still a possibility they bolster the position in unrestricted free agency.
The Bears are reportedly interested in Seattle’s Brandon Mebane, who has ties to Tim Ruskell, the Bears' vice president of player personnel, and defensive line coach Mike Phair.